Sidezoomers vs. Lineuppers
All kinds of driving personalities emerge on the Caldecott Tunnel approach.
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Here is the Caldecott Tunnel Problem. If there’s another person with you right now, you may end up raising your voices as you consider it. I’m just warning, is all. The last time I brought up the Caldecott Tunnel Problem among friends, two people who had been a happy couple for a long time started arguing, and then they looked at each other as though something new and disturbing were presenting itself, and when I got up to go, one of them was pounding the table and yelling at her beloved, “But that is so wrong!”
Anyway, the problem. As you know, if you live anywhere in the general territory of the 925 or 510, the three bores of the Caldecott Tunnel run east-west beneath the hills that separate you 925ers from Oakland and Berkeley, where my 510 brethren and I live. If you’re driving east-west around here, as you also know, you use the Caldecott; you could go winding over the hills and bypass the problem altogether, but it would take forever, and you don’t want to. The stretch of Highway 24 that leads into the Caldecott is pretty, besides, coursing like a river through that cleft in the open hills. There are houses, but the grassland slopes up around them all green-gold and poppy-dotted now, in the waning months of spring.
So here you are, let us say, en route from your house in Walnut Creek to my house in North Oakland, heading west toward the Caldecott at the end of an April afternoon. The geography, what with the long approach and the hills on either side, requires you to focus on the thing that is about to happen ahead—you can see it coming and sometimes from quite a distance, depending on how bad the backup is. You remember, of course, that the trick about the Caldecott is that the middle bore changes direction, by means of signage and mechanically raised cone separators, according to the morning and evening heavy commutes. So if you’re westbound at the end of the day, the cars coming in the other direction get that middle bore, which means your half of Highway 24 is being coned off into the one remaining tunnel bore on the right—a four-lane to two-lane funnel.
This is the point at which the North American driving populace cleaves into two camps.
Two-thirds of us, according to calculations I have made while brooding inordinately about this inside my Subaru, are “lineuppers,” slowing rapidly from 70 to 30 or 20 or whatever, and taking our places—courteously and patiently, as our mothers taught us to do, respecting the broad tenets of social justice, and the primacy of fairness to all persons on the road, regardless of income or ethnicity or car model or perceived level of personal importance ... where was I? Oh. Sorry. Taking our places at the end of the line, I was saying, the long two-lane line that has formed to the right, creeping toward the two-lane mouth of our tunnel bore. There is still some empty lane space beside us on the left, true, where the cones are gradually closing those left lanes down. But people are already lined up. If we passed them on the left to get in farther ahead, we would be taking cuts.
One-third of us, on the other hand, zoom on by. For purposes of this problem, I shall call them “sidezoomers.” (When I raised the Caldecott Tunnel Problem with my father, who is 83, he startled me by suggesting a longer label that included more bad words than I believe I have ever heard him use at one time before.) Sidezoomers have a variety of strategies, each exaggerated by the configuration of the Caldecott but replicated in bottlenecks across the land: There are the ones who zoom by a few dozen cars, angling in when they see a plausible opening; and there are the ones who zoom all the way up to the very top of the coned-off funnel, at which point they thrust their aggressive little self-entitled fenders toward the lineup and nudge themselves in. And there are those who opt for frontage road sidezooming, maneuvering into the right highway lane in order to get off at that pretunnel exit, Gateway, which is supposed to deliver people to the California Shakespeare Theater but happens in addition to parallel Highway 24 for a half mile or so. A sidezoomer can zip along that and get back on 24 at the next entrance, slipping in ahead of the lineup he bypassed on the road. So now he’s taking cuts too, but from the right.
And that last exit lane before the tunnel, Fish Ranch Road, also on the right? You can’t get back onto the highway once you’ve exited there, but if you’re a sidezoomer, you can slide into the empty exit-only lane, still on the highway but pretending you’re leaving, and then you drive and drive right past all the lineuppers until whoops, now at the last minute you’ve changed your mind, and you’re not exiting at all, you’re sneaking back into the line.
Not in front of me, though.
Until recently, I had the idea that I was somewhat overwrought about this. I supposed there were not all that many drivers gritting their teeth behind their steering wheels, practicing what Jerry Seinfeld once referred to as the “stare-ahead” while declining to let the sidezoomers in and musing at the same time that this is the problem with modern American capitalism, really, this antiaristocratic all-men-are-created-equal narrative we pretend to cherish while simultaneously celebrating the individual’s right to do whatever advances his own interests, without technically breaking the law, Gordon Gekko triumphant over César Chávez, and that is an exit-only lane, you rodent, so no, you are not cutting in front of me unless you look as if you might have a gun in your car, in which case, OK, but you’re still a rodent.
I was wrong, as it turns out. There are a lot of people who feel this way.
I know this because a while ago, I began asking around—politely, I mean, trying to avoid adjectives like “bullying” and “lowlife,” making inquiries as to who lines up at bottlenecks and who sidezooms. The truth is, I had come to be a tiny bit rattled by uncertainty. I kept studying that empty lane space to either side of our lineup. Something about the physics was not working out. I bought a textbook called Traffic Flow Fundamentals, hoping for instructions as to the technically correct way to enter a lane-drop funnel, but its explanations looked like this:
When k = kj,μ = 0
(vehicles bumper to bumper but no movement):
0 = ∙0 1n (C2 / kj)
So I started consulting professionals on my own: traffic engineers, highway police, queuing theorists. Things got complicated. There was the cultural factor, for example. (I asked one table full of Berkeley graduate students whether they were sidezoomers or lineuppers, winking at the Israeli and the Italian because we all knew which they would be, and they both considered the question thoughtfully until it dawned on them that by sidezooming, I did not mean bypassing slower traffic by driving up the sidewalk.) I learned some of the ways a traffic bottleneck is and is not an open crowd queue, like the kind entering a sports stadium—the speed, the isolating qualities of an auto’s steel bubble, the coarsening effect of no-eye-contact anonymity. I learned that the founder of modern queuing theory was a 19th-century Dane whose specific who-goes-first challenge involved the newfangled Copenhagen phone system, which required callers to be sorted and moved along, disembodied but queued nonetheless, in a way that was both maximally efficient and acceptable to all. I learned that Officer Sam Morgan, of the California Highway Patrol, occasionally uses the term “cranial-rectal inversion” when referring to drivers of especially poor judgment, which was one of the most satisfactory things I learned all month, come to think of it. I asked each of these professionals the same questions:
1. If you were inside your personal vehicle, approaching a bottleneck that offered you the options of lineup or sidezoom, which option would you select?
2. Who’s right?